Category Archives: Learning

Excerpt: Awe and Presence

Another preview from The Constellation of Man: Part 3 (of 8) from Book I of Volume I. —CPB


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artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

Our “reality” is habitually pared-down, less complex, less awe-inducing, less exciting, as an acclimation. We require experiences to open our eyes to the world around us and within us.

The experiences can always be found. In fact there are too many for our attention. But we must cease to be dead to our senses and our callings.

On one occasion we have reason to doubt. On another, we have reason to marvel. From one time to the other, it is, most significantly, we that have become different, whatever else has changed around us.

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artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

It is not unusual that one who encounters pain or tedium lives through what seems like too much to bear, and closes. Another can observe this hardened attitude and see nothing but immaturity. They see a stuck, troubled, thoughtless child, crying “I am jaded, and there is nothing left to amaze and delight me.”

It is common to encounter hardening or dulling experiences that strip away the innocence of youth. It is rare to learn what to take from harsh or deficient experience—how to meet experiences, and not only receive them; how to remain sensitive through what could deaden, how to sublimate what could scar, and how to remain open instead of closing.

Disciplined learning about the world yields some resilience, though not the same that comes with practice. At least, learning can supply alternatives to a single way of seeing and experiencing things, or too few.

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Nelumbo nucifera, sacred lotus; umbilical symbol of creation, rebirth, unfolding enlightenment, purity, and more; seat of gods and goddesses, buddhas and bodhisattvas; iconic in myths of Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi; identified with Buddha. In “On the Love of the Lotus,” Chinese sage Zhou Dun Yi observed in poetic allegory that the lotus, both open and straight, grows out of mud, but remains unsullied.

It is necessary to gather perspectives on our own experiences from the breadth and depth of other experiences across time and place. All our lives are local and limited. Greatness can blossom from opening up to just a little more.

Transcending our place to see more, and awakening to the transcendent in us is one purpose of religious mythology.

Scientific knowledge can act as myth just the same; if a child is told the story of how she is made of star-stuff, she learns that her own atoms were once forged within the nuclear cores of stars bright eons before the sun, and by vaster stars that exploded. She learns that life-giving atoms in her and all people were star-sown. The truth of that legend is both incidental to its transcendental power and majesty, and no detraction.

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Light from the edge of a blast wave from a star that exploded approximately 6000 BC, during Neolithic civilization on Earth. The visible supernova remnant is now called the Veil Nebula. This mosaic of Hubble telescope images shows a small section of the distant Nebula, with false colors assigned to emissions from hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur.

An expansive revelation about our place, and our connections to some mystery we have to struggle to imagine, fills us with awe. Awe is a kind of restorative experience. Awe knocks ennui aside without a thought for the tedium that formerly seemed to pervade life.

In awe, one forgets doubts, and ever feeling that life is insignificant, unimportant, pointless—or miserable, consigned to suffering, or to guilt. One forgets feeling that life itself could be subjected to doubts. Awe induces doubt that life could be known, could be encompassed by our smaller experience.

Simple novelty of experience promotes a modest openness. To pursue novelty is certainly easier and much more common than an awesome, transcendent revelation. Even if novel experiences do not teach, they can achieve some restoration of feeling.

Otherwise, our familiar world seems too small and too usual. That familiar domain occludes the unseen remainder of the world. Life, too familiar, obstructs our participation in all else, diverse as we cannot imagine. Life seems cramped, repetitive, even hopeless. This is our feeling, unfairly attributed to other life without our constraint and beyond our limitations. Our impression of life portrays a distortion of life, conditioned or contained. Escape from noticing life only seems the credible alternative to neurosis and depression.

A routine travesty of living appears ridiculous in the face of further experiences discovered by spontaneity, or created by improvisation. Moments in which we experience different things—or even familiar things, differently—can then become extraordinary to us. These moments deliver us.

It is not too difficult to make extraordinary moments, for those who know they must seek them out. Ordinary moments are not ordinary at all to those who know how to transform them, with observance, into informal rituals. Sense phenomena that others take for granted can attain a phenomenal attention, a spiritual attention, suitable for sacrament.

[To feel] spiritual presence means and requires that you are present. All that becomes banal—an urban skyline view, an alcoholic high, a walk in the woods, rhythm or melody, a sexual touch, an idea written long ago—can be refreshed with spirit.

Spiritual experiences are restorative, as well as extraordinary experiences. They feel special, and make us feel special about ourselves or about living—eternal objects of human desire, taking infinite guises.

Feeling special about ourselves is indistinct from the impression of having purpose, or life having significance or meaning. A “relationship with God” communicates that one is special, that one has purpose, and life has meaning. But this is the same thing that people want most from romantic relationships with other people: the opportunity to feel special about themselves through a sense of connection-to-other. They want transcendence not only from changes in perspective, but manifested in experience made special—spiritual—through renewed attention to the senses, and ensuing intensification. The bond becomes sacred; the sexual rite becomes holy. A deep relationship with one’s work or calling can likewise become sanctified by devotion, attention, and presence.

A sacred or holy experience is not derived from a thing, place, or action called sacred or holy. We must supply preparation for a sense of the sacred or holy, which can be found in almost anything; it is the person who charges the encounter, not whatever seems sacred or holy.

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Lotus Temple, Bahá’í House of Worship, New Delhi

It is a great mystical, esoteric, and at times heretical teaching that the high experiences of religion are open to you. They are allowed. They are already implicit in the living human body, though not well-realized without practice. You can learn to recognize doors and need not depend on formal rituals to unlock them. You need not borrow a set of keys that dogma approves and intercessors must provide.

Even the grandest senses of divinity do not depend upon being seized by powers outside ourselves. The power to have transcendent experiences in the world unfolds from living, open to transcendent experiences.

You must ask yourself if you allow a sense of awe before the majesty of the world, intricate beyond your knowledge, beyond your time.

Can you hear, can you say: “Awake, awake! The world is new from this moment!” This feeling can begin a creation story for a new life.

 

Awe and other concepts that sound religious describe experiences to be realized in actual life. Grace and blessedness, transcendence and revelation, love, joy, passion, ecstasy and rapture are also called religious experiences, but they refer to real experiences of feeling nonetheless.

When religion is made regular, named, and organized, these experiences are exceedingly likely to remain concepts, drafted into rituals or doctrines that may be practiced and followed without those feelings; religion without spirit; religion left with dead metaphors, antique distractions; dogma now without corpus.

Life without the set of spiritual experiences is limited to a subset without sensations of “meaning.”

All the religious concepts—or rather, spiritual feelings behind religious concepts—can be naturalized, made part of our clearer understanding of natural, human life rooted in the body’s nervous system and the dispositions and needs of the mind. Spiritual experiences are special neural experiences, not supernatural or otherworldly experiences. The numinous can be integrated into natural life, and not cast out to the supernatural—nor dismissed along with superstition by the secular-minded.

Awe has become rarer than ever before. That few wonder at the rarity of the experience called awe could almost explain its rarity. The near absence of awe in adulthood seems to go virtually unnoticed and unremarked, though the experience is extraordinary. Awe has become an empty word out of fashion to modern people who cannot relate. Many identify awe with religious devotion, no longer valued, or practiced only as custom. But devotion is a road to awe, to pervasive holiness, to reverence and resonance, and if these things must be lost with secular deliverance from superstition, we should have cause to question whether that is deliverance at all. By all those numb and jaded, awe is missed, and the unshaken soul perceived, if not by words, then deep down instead.

But it is not necessary to lose awe without religion, just as it is not necessary to abandon spirit. Awe before God, or gods, represents awe before the epic of life in the world. It is simply that the origin of mighty experiences was mistaken to be might outside oneself.

Love, also, wells up and flows out from within, not to the credit of objects of fixation: idealized figures of divinity, or erotic attraction. We have in our brains the means for intense alterations of perception and participation. In a sense, as long as we are thus prepared, the triggers are almost incidental, if we know better than to attribute our electrified chemistry to them. We misbelieve in our dependency on others, and outside forces.

Religious experiences can be summoned up from within oneself. This is the “heresy” of personal divinity, that because I can summon up divine feelings, I am God—another untrue metaphor to express a truth.

 

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Excerpt: The Sage and the Town That Was Dreaming and Drowning

Continuing to post selections taken out of context from large amounts of unfinished material collected for The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. All selections were written by me since 2010. Some are unrepresentative. All remain in development, subject to change. —CPB


A sage who offered the greatest of gifts walked through a town of worries, and spoke to the townspeople.

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lithograph of Kandahar, 1847

Some listened. He told them not what they wanted to hear, but what would solve their problems.

One onlooker, a merchant from another town who revered the wisdom of the itinerant sage, was surprised to see most of these townspeople turn from the sage, spit on the ground, or even slap him in the face. Finally, a group of men threatened the sage, and knocked him down when he continued to speak.

“What awful ingratitude!” the merchant exclaimed, helping the sage to his feet. “And how foolish they are. You came to help, and they reject it thoughtlessly.”

The sage shook his head. “For all their contempt, they are not telling me they reject the knowledge I offer. They are not even telling me I am wrong, although they say so. They are telling me: ‘I did not hear it in the right way.’ My words were not what they expected.”

“Surely, it should not matter what words you used. A drowning man would not refuse a rough hand grabbing him. And I think a man who is dreaming of what he wants will not make rude objections to the djinni who can grant his wish, no matter the surprise to the man, or the manner of the djinni.”

The sage smiled. “Truly, the townsfolk are both dreaming, and drowning. But they must save themselves, and grant their own wishes. I told them so, but they do not realize they are dreaming and drowning. Therefore, they do not know the importance of recognizing that predicament. They do not await hearing knowledge they could use to help themselves. They only hear that I have made demands of them, and consider themselves rudely put upon.”

“I see,” said the merchant slowly. “Wisdom offers a horse to those who have packed a cart ready to hitch. But those who have been trying to drag cargo behind them only feel that they are being goaded to go faster like a beast of burden. Besides, if they knew what you do, that they are stuck, they might already have less need to hear it. They might have found their own horse. I see. Very good.”

The merchant was satisfied to learn how it could be that the value of a sagacious perspective to save and change lives does not prevent its rejection.

“But how,” he added, “supposing you are right… realization must come before accepting knowledge. But without acquiring knowledge, how will they come to realization? How could you tell them what they need to hear in some way that would get around their obstinacy?”

“They must go forward in their backbreaking journey until they realize they have need of my horse. Walking the hard road may teach what hard words do not. They cannot avoid it so easily as they can close their ears to being told where they are and what they are doing. Let us wish them a short journey to preparation, for the way can be painful.”

“What a shame! But that means your visit to this town has been a wasted one.”

“Not at all. I will continue to try. Some ears might be open, and I would spare them hardship. Indeed I will think harder about how I speak to them. How they will hear it is more important than what I say.”

The merchant bade farewell to the sage. He stood and watched him as he walked into the distance. He wondered about the people who drag weight behind them and refuse a means of relief. He thought about those who keep getting stuck in the road, and curse those who pass. “Perhaps,” he thought, “they should be left to figure out their situation for themselves. It might be better for learning if they have to search for a horse to draw their cart.”

But at length, he marveled at their suffering, the suffering of the men and women of the town. He realized how few would manage to raise themselves up off the hard road and out of its potholes and mud before they were broken by the bitter labors of fools and beasts.

He looked into the distance, in the direction the sage had gone, and nodded.

Learning for yourself requires attention to disagreement, and suspension of judgment (epoché)

I wrote this tonight in response to someone equating the unmooring-from-reality of reptilian-conspiracist Icke-followers with sound money activists (End-the-Fed and Paul boosters), someone whose dismissal of the Austrian economists indicated he didn’t know a thing about them besides a number of falsehoods. But, I think it’s a point worth sharing more generally:

Certainly, it’s easier to think you have a clue about a subject when you only read a limited set of views, or people you already agree with, instead of some of the many others who disagree. It’s easier to presume they’re all clueless, crazy, weird, or poorly educated, instead, without actually finding out.

Reliable knowledge is obtained by admitting that disagreement is not indicative of stupidity. Learning is a process that occurs not when we absorb information like a sponge, but when we allow ourselves to consider other points of view by taking them seriously on a provisional basis, and attempt to sort out and reconcile contradictions and disconnects. Otherwise, everyone will continue to defend whatever points of view about a subject were first imparted to them, no matter how skewed, or incomplete.

An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson

I hope this film does justice to Bateson, especially the best of his categorical thinking about different kinds of thinking we do, and all his mighty efforts to make sense out of the mind we assume we understand, and therefore do not. Unfortunately there has been a tendency by others not as brilliant to render his subtlety into overly specific applications that ignore the real points of systems and cybernetics.

Rather like Nietzsche—another of my favorite thinkers—in my experience the optimal way to understand Bateson’s ways of thinking is to read him, not to read about him. Although it may appear easier to allow others to sift through his work for you, and summarization may even work reasonably well to understand main points of other philosophers, with Bateson the evasion of your own labor sifting through his work probably also evades the golden yield of it. In both his case and Nietzsche’s, the most important part is not specifically what he will discuss but how he will do it, and how he will urge you to learn to think in the process. That you will have to think, and how you will, is important. Bateson is also no more easily distilled than Nietzsche, and perhaps similarly prone to both distortion, and projection by readers of what they already want or expect to read there, based on preconceptions and fixations.

Learning how to learn, and create

Objectively, trying to top my best work gets harder and harder.

I think about this as I return to writing about obstacles to understanding and realizing personal and social “progress,” which I made the subject of a 2007 essay called Rising in Walls (in this anthology). Rising in Walls was probably the best work I wrote up to that point. I am still very proud of that treatment of these themes (sort of my improvement upon Colin Wilson’s exploratory questioning approach in The Outsider). However, I am now working with a different stylistic approach to conveying some related ideas, to see how I can improve upon what I did (or at least, add some different perspective in a more gripping style). This is also a 2010 from-scratch rewrite of my original attempt at a “central” Promethean synthesis (last version, 2003) which adds more pressure.

Such a task could be quite unnerving, and it’s never easy to always say, “right, that was good, or even great—how do I do better next time?”

But the really interesting thing is this: I’ve noticed that over the past dozen years, I have somehow acquired more momentum behind doing just that (topping myself). It becomes less of a struggle, in some respects, though still quite the challenge.

I guess this relates in part to a research interest of Gregory Bateson, “deutero-learning” or second-order learning. “Learning how to learn” is a phenomenon that has been experimentally confirmed with new task performance on a graph, but there also seems to be second-order adaptation to facilitate creative processes. It seems the brain can adapt methods for encountering new challenges, in that sense, also.

Almost certainly this has to do with acquiring more flexibility, such as more models to use to think, and more colors in my creative palette so to speak, and fewer unneeded “rules” for myself.

More confidence, also. My motto now is to have no fear; I trust my creative instincts and take risks in changing up what I’ve already written, without worrying half as much as I used to.

It’s an amazingly gratifying thing to actually experience—one of the special rewards for devoting your life to “mastering” something as Bateson put it, one that really only becomes clear after a number of years of intense work and intense reevaluation.